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Creativity in academic writing

Students who prefer creative forms of expression (e.g., storytelling, creative writing, music, art) may struggle with the formality and structure that is typically expected in academic writing. If you’ve ever questioned how creativity fits into academic writing, you may see creativity and academic writing as two ends of a spectrum; however, they have more in common than you might think. In fact, academic writing doesn’t happen without creativity as authors need to tap into their own original ideas to communicate their thinking to an audience, just as story tellers, musicians, and artists capture their ideas in their preferred modes. Though the final result of academic writing is formal and structured, academic writing is still an expression of creative thinking that meets the expectations of a scholarly audience.

If you’re yearning to take a more creative approach to academic writing, consider how you might involve aspects of your creativity at different stages of the writing process. For example, when you’re developing ideas and deciding on your essay topic, try brainstorming using colours, shapes, or designs to represent your ideas. You may also find it helpful to keep a journal that allows you to record your ideas in whatever form best represents your thinking.

When it comes to the planning stage of writing, consider how you like to organize your thoughts when you are working on other types of projects. For example, if using a linear approach like outlining feels like the death of all creative energy to you, try a different approach that better reflects how you think, such as mind-mapping or story-boarding your assignment. You could use photos to represent your ideas and build a collage that captures the details. If the format allows you to work from your plan to create the first draft of your document, it’s the right format for you, regardless if it works for anyone else.

Once you’ve got your plan in place, consider the narrative of your assignment e.g., what is the beginning, middle, and end of the work? For example, if you have experience with creative writing, try writing the plot of the essay. If you’re feeling stuck, try telling the story out loud to see how the story unfolds. Once the framework of the story is in place, you can move the approach and tone of the work from being narrative and descriptive to a more analytical, formal piece of writing. For example, look for adjectives and adverbs, which are common descriptive words that typically aren’t necessary in academic writing. If the adjectives or adverbs don’t provide essential information, delete them to improve the conciseness of the text. Also, check if you’ve used metaphors in the text, and if so, use the metaphor to help you identify a more specific meaning. While the metaphor might seem obvious to you, imagine if someone who is unfamiliar with the expression tried to understand it based on the literal meaning of the phrase. For example, understood literally, “think outside the box” makes no sense at all; however, “solve problems using non-traditional approaches” gives more specific and direct information, especially if an author provides examples to further illustrate the point.

While creativity is essential to all stages of academic writing, creative writing and academic writing do have major differences, largely due to the intent and audience of the work. For example, creative writers use narrative techniques, such as suspense, to engage the reader’s attention and imagination. In contrast, academic writing is persuasive and analytical, which means writers engage readers through convincing arguments and explanations that support the overall focus of the work. Furthermore, where creative writing engages the reader through imagery and emotion, academic writing provides compelling information that demonstrates the author’s understanding of a topic. While readers actively participate in creative writing by involving their imaginations in their reading experiences, academic readers focus on understanding the author’s thinking on a topic. For example, in a reflective work about personal leadership goals, an author could tell the story of a challenging conflict at work and explain how addressing that conflict will support his or her growth as an effective leader. By providing that analysis, the author allows the reader to view the conflict as the author sees it: a challenge, but an essential step in the development of personal leadership skills. Without that additional explanation, the story of the conflict itself wouldn’t communicate how the resolving the conflict fits into the broader discussion of the author’s development as a leader, nor why the author values the opportunity to build the necessary skills.

Regardless of your level of comfort and confidence with academic writing, your creativity is essential to your writing. Try taking advantage of your creative strengths to build a strong framework for your essay that will support your writing, and in so doing, allow you to communicate your ideas clearly to your audience.

Do you have questions about this writing tip? Please contact the Writing Centre as we'd be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Manager, Blended Learning Success

(Originally published in Crossroads September 27, 2018)

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